I love to travel by train; it is relaxing, stress-free, convenient and comfortable. In Europe, there are always easy train connections to zip from one locale to the next. Over the last eighty years or so Europe has refined train travel repeatedly. Today, travelers can enjoy a network of high-speed trains that provide lightning quick transportation across hundreds of miles in a just a few hours. There is also a network of “inter-city” trains, that don’t go quite as fast, but are the workhorses of public transportation all over Europe. I hope to persuade you to “try the train” when traveling in Europe. I am convinced that once you do, you will be hooked.
THE BIGGEST MISTAKES
Novice train travelers often make simple mistakes that can raise their blood pressure and bring them to tears. With a little education, most of these mistakes are preventable. My purpose here is to help prevent stress through education. In the next few paragraphs I’ll try to “talk you through” every stage of train travel. Here are the top four mistakes made by travelers:
bringing too much luggage,
arriving at the departure station late,
lack of knowledge of the processes involved in reading the schedule board and related train information,
not knowing how to find the correct train, car and seat, and
The onset of panic when things don’t go according to plan.
OVER PACKING complicates any travel. I preach packing light all the time, but it is even more important when traveling by train. Not a trip goes by that I don’t encounter red-faced people rushing to get on a train with “coffin-size” suitcases, multiple handbags and flimsy shopping bags loaded with souvenirs. Traveling with too much luggage is the single most stress-producing element of any trip.
Trains complicate matters because there is no opportunity to “check” your baggage like there is on an airplane. On the train, you have to tote all your luggage along with you. That means through the station, down the platform, up the train car’s steep steps, down the train car’s aisle, and finally up on the overhead rack above your seat.
The train car’s steps…let me describe that. The vertical distance from the boarding platform to the train car’s floor level is often at least three feet. In order to get into the train car one must step across the gap between the platform and the train car, navigate three very steep and narrow steps, open a door, and enter a small vestibule on the train car. Then you have to open another door, walk down the aisle and locate your assigned seat. Without luggage, it is a rather simple process, with more than one carry-on sized bag it is a stressful and physically challenging experience. Packing light is the key to a pleasant train travel experience. (See my articles on packing light by searching the topic on this blog).
ARRIVE AT THE STATION EARLY to scout out the “lay of the land.” Every train station in Europe has a similar layout. There is a central area often containing ticket offices, automatic ticket dispensing machines, restaurants, to-go food shops, department stores, specialty shops, and a waiting area. Scout this area and observe the locals purchasing their tickets and going about “life” in the station.
Guard your belongings and beware of thieves and pickpockets. Do not ever leave your stuff unattended, not even for a moment. Wear your moneybelt. Keep necessary cash and a credit cards handy and out of your moneybelt to purchase train tickets and supplies. Do not dig around in your moneybelt while in the station! Train travel and stations are safe and there is no need to worry about violent crime. However, the stations are loaded with pickpockets and thieves just waiting for some unsuspecting tourist to drop their guard and become their victim.
LEARN THE PROCEDURE of finding your train by watching the locals. Somewhere in the central area is a TV monitor or big display board listing arriving and departing trains. Large train stations often have a huge monitor placed high overhead in a prominent location. Smaller stations have TV-type monitors displaying the same information. Find this display and keep an eye on it. It is the key to getting to the correct train track and your train. Normally the arrivals and departures appear on the displays thirty to forty-five minutes before the schedule departure/arrival time. Don’t panic if your train is not listed on the display. Just be patient, it will appear sometime before your scheduled departure time.
The monitors contain valuable information such as:
Departure or Arrival time listed in descending chronological order,
The track number of train arrivals or departures,
The train number and what type of train it is (such as Eurostar, Intercity, Regional, etc.),
Destination and intermediate stops.
You will find lots of information printed on your train ticket or reservation stub. Look for the departure city and the destination city, the departure and arrival time, the train car number and your seat number. Watch the display board or TV monitor. When your train number, destination and departure time show up on the display, it is time to start moving. Armed with the information on your ticket and the information presented on the display monitor you can venture out of the central area and onto the boarding platforms.
Once on the boarding platform area you will see many train tracks, some with trains in a stopped position, others will be empty. At smaller stations there may even be trains racing at high speeds through the stations. Never mind all that. Right now, your job is to find the TRACK NUMBER (it was displayed on the monitor) for your train. If you are traveling in a country where you do not speak the language, it is a good idea to write down your train information on a “cue card” in case you need to ask an attendant. Instead of bumbling through the local language simply show your “cue card,” point to the train and say yes or no in a questioning manner. Be sure to use the local language for courtesy words such as please, thank you, hello, and goodbye. Here is an example for train #1351 departing at 2:25 p.m. from Milan to Venice.
TRENO # 1351 14:25
Some train stations have a security checkpoint at the boarding platforms. These checkpoints are similar to those at airports but with normally much less wait time. If your station has a security checkpoint, plan to arrive on the platform earlier to allow ample time to clear security.
Once you find the correct TRACK NUMBER be sure to verify the train number and departure time on the monitor at the track.
Now that you have identified the correct train, you need to find the correct TRAIN CAR and your assigned seat. On your ticket or reservation stub find a word meaning TRAIN CAR. Let’s say it is TRAIN CAR # 4. In this case, you should begin walking alongside the train, looking at the doors to each car for a sign designating the TRAIN CAR number. Continue walking until you find your TRAIN CAR number on the door.
(You will also see large numbers 1 and 2 that designate first- class and second-class cars. Normally the first-class cars are near the front of the train, but in the station, you often don’t know which is the front of the train).
Now climb the steep steps. You will have no problem if you packed light, otherwise enlist someone to help hoist your bags up the steps. Enter the small vestibule and go through another door into the train cabin. Walk down the aisle looking for your assigned seat (seats are laid out logically in ascending or descending chronological order depending on which end of the train car you entered). Once you find your seat, stow your luggage on the rack above or in between the seats, sit down and relax.
STRESS AND PANIC can set in at any point. For me, I always have my doubts. Even though I’ve doubled checked my ticket, the train, the train car and my seat number I always seem to have this nagging thought…”Am I on the right train?” I have the right car and seat; is it possible this train is going to Munich instead of Venice?” It’s at that time I always calm myself by thinking, “I’ve got everything correct… the right train number, destination, car, and seat. No one here wants my seat, so I must be on the right train and the right seat. HOWEVER, if you still need assurance, ask someone nearby who speaks the local language to confirm the destination. Most everyone in Europe speaks enough English to confirm this for you.
Another source of panic might occur if your itinerary calls for a change of trains before reaching your final destination. Transfers happen often, and believe it or not, the European train system calculates, to the minute, the amount of time needed by the average traveler to change from one train to another. If your itinerary contains a “transfer”, try following these rules:
Review your transfer train number, departure time and destination before entering the “transfer” station.
Several minutes before your stop, begin collecting your luggage and moving to the vestibule.
Get off the train as quickly as possible.
Once on the platform, begin looking for TV monitors for arrival/departure information.
- If no TV monitor is in sight, look for a 4’x8′ foot poster or billboard (listed as “Arrivals” and “Departures” ) and locate the hour, train, and track.
From the monitor or “Departures” board, determine what track your connecting train is on.
Do not delay. Proceed immediately to the track and verify with an attendant or the monitor that this is indeed the train to your destination.
The procedure described above seems simple, but believe me, it can be a big point of stress. Keep your head clear, plan your route ahead of time and know in your “mind’s eye” what the logical steps are to get to the next train. Once you do it a couple of times, it will become an adventure, not a stress.
Watch your belongings while on the train. There are thieves here too just waiting for you turn your back so they can take everything you own. If traveling alone consider attaching your luggage to the overhead rack with a zip tie or cable lock.
Shop for picnic suppliers at the train station and plan to “picnic” while riding the train. This is perfectly acceptable and everyone does it. It’s ok to bring your own food, drinks, wine, and beer.
Know the name of your destination train station. Many cities have several train stations, so getting off when your hear the city mentioned may put you out in the boondocks, far away from your actual destination.
Don’t fall asleep and miss your stop! Your ticket and the monitor information should give you a pretty good idea of the arrival time at your station. About twenty minutes before arrival time, begin to watch the locals, collect your bags when they do, and head for the door with them.
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